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Anita Hill vs. Clarence Thomas: When Conservatives Nipped the Concept of Sexual Harassment in the Bud

Twenty-seven years ago, the Voice exposed the way in which Senate Republicans attacked and vilified Anita Hill — and won. Now the Old Boys Club is applying the same playbook against Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers.

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It was the most riveting daytime soap opera since the Watergate hearings — an all-male chorus line of U.S. senators attacking the morals and motives of Anita Hill, a conservative law professor who had accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Thomas went on to be narrowly confirmed by the Senate, 52-48.

As Richard Goldstein reported in his postmortem in the October 29, 1991, issue of the Voice, “If feminists regard the Thomas hearings as a failure, the right truly will have won. In reality, this was an annunciation of a new, gender-based politics, with the potential to challenge the traditional configuration of left and right.” Well, as the current confirmation hearings on Brett Kavanaugh are revealing, perhaps the challenge was not strong enough. That said, Goldstein also pointed out how even back then conservatives were happy to demonize the press: “Here was a network of women journalists speaking truth to entrenched male power. The right lost no time in demanding their heads.”

Amy Taubin zeroed in on the optics coming out of the hearing room: “Caught off guard, the TV people could do little more than set up their cameras and roll tape, while the White House was forced to improvise damage-control tactics that shifted daily.” The Voice film critic exposed the holes in the GOP’s script: “Understanding that TV is nothing if not narrative, the Republicans got to work like hack writers from Troma Films, tossing out one high concept after another. Friday’s script — with Hill the dupe of a satanic, left-wing conspiracy — developed second-act problems when they couldn’t work her support for [conservative judge Robert] Bork into the story line. Saturday was the spurned woman scenario; with the mention of Fatal Attraction, 11 courtesy calls became proof of erotomania. By Sunday, the scorned woman had developed delusions — possibly to cancel any weight that Hill’s successful polygraph test might carry.”

Laurie Stone asked why polls showed that a majority of women believed Thomas, even though “Hill passed a lie detector test. She had nothing to gain and everything to lose by testifying. She spoke credibly, weaving a story about Thomas he then proceeded to act out. Hill described a man who was crude, inept, driven. He asked for a date but couldn’t take no for an answer. He hammered away, wanting to know why he was being turned down. He used his authority to feel big at the expense of making a woman feel small.” Stone also discusses the social relations that got steamrolled by the male senators: “Throughout the hearings, the divided nature of human response was simplified or denied. Lost were distinctions between sexual harassment and harmless flirting. Flirting disappeared from public discussion, as if all inviting lines might conceal nasty messages. But every woman knows the difference between sex play that’s welcome and being hit on while radiating don’t. That don’t is the crux of sexual harassment.”

And finally, the absurdity of an all-male bevy of senators closing ranks around a big fan of the porn actor Long Dong Silver is captured in Lynda Barry’s “A Cock & Bull Story.”

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